Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 5 (Winter 2001): Human Rights in Times of Conflict: Humanitarian Intervention: Articles: The Successes and Failures of UN Intervention in East Timor

Jan 6, 2001

Human Rights Dialogue: Did the people of East Timor want humanitarian intervention?

Ajiza Magno: Yes. The International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), which was sent into East Timor in September 1999, and the ensuing peacekeeping mission were very much needed. It is really important that INTERFET came in when it did because it created instantaneous security. Without this protection, any misstep by the local guerilla movement that had been defending the East Timorese—the Armed Forces of National Liberation of East Timor (FALINTIL)—might have resulted in a lot more deaths.

During the violence that followed the referendum in August 1999, FALINTIL’s hands were really tied. Their imprisoned commander, Xanana Gusmao, had ordered them not to attack any Indonesian troops or militias—instead, they had to hide themselves or they would have been killed. Thus, the intervention brought a measure of safety that was really needed. In addition, the peacekeeping force was an important factor in keeping East Timor free of Indonesian military presence. Now most of East Timor is safe, though the refugee and border situation is still quite bad.

Even before the escalation of hostilities that followed the referendum, however, there were a lot of people hiding in the mountains and a lot of people who were very afraid. The intervention did bring security, but it was late in doing it. It would have been better to have something like INTERFET in East Timor before the elections.

Dialogue: Did people in East Timor expect or hope for an earlier intervention?

Magno: It was apparent from the May 1999 agreement with the United Nations that Indonesia was going to have complete control of security in the region. This was a huge disappointment for the East Timorese. People began to voice their concerns at that point, saying that they did not trust the Indonesian police or military and that they were very afraid. Their fears were quickly realized. Intimidation steadily increased as the election approached. People did ask the United Nations to send peacekeepers and even demanded that it send a force to protect them. However, it was not until after the violence started—when there were a large number of UN people that had to be evacuated—that the United Nations finally sent INTERFET. I wonder if the United Nations would have sent in the force had foreigners not been in danger.

Dialogue: Do people in East Timor believe the actions of the international community are motivated by human rights concerns?

Magno: It may be called a humanitarian intervention, but if the United Nations really cared about human rights, it would be doing more right now to prosecute people responsible for human rights violations. Every time you talk about an international tribunal with someone who works for the United Nations in East Timor they say, “Well, you know, it takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of time, and it would be a huge hassle.” Though the people of East Timor say they want justice, the United Nations is very reluctant to undertake the task.

The United Nations presence in East Timor is almost like the sovereign government of a country. It has never had so much power in one country. In a way, this is like a great experiment for the United Nations—it often seems like a way to build up people’s CVs rather than a way to do something for the East Timorese. I don’t know what all the different motives of UN workers are, but human rights do not seem to be a top priority.

It also seems like the United Nations is a lot more willing to pay for other things: arms, more training for a local military, and bringing in more troops. In my opinion, there are already too many troops in East Timor. They cover the whole country, when they are really only needed along the border. The local guerillas—who had been the people’s protectors for a long time—are not being given the power to guard their own country, even though that would be economically a lot more feasible than importing troops. The United Nations is willing to spend whatever it takes for security but not for human rights and justice.

Dialogue: How has the international presence affected the human rights situation in East Timor?

Magno: The greatest problem right now, and the greatest violation of rights, involves the right of the East Timorese people to help reconstruct their country and to have decision-making power in this process. All legislative and decision-making power is currently in the hands of the UN-appointed transitional administrator, Sergio de Mello. This quashes the voice of the East Timorese and limits their civil right to participation in the political process. Even those East Timorese who are brought into the UN system as part of the national council are appointed rather than elected, and the consultative process for their appointment has never really been explained to people in the villages. It may appear to the United Nations that they are setting up a system in which the East Timorese have a voice, but the people have never been told how to use that voice. The bureaucracy is opaque and confusing.

As a result, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) has very different priorities from those of the East Timorese. It has not built much-needed roads and local markets, but rather channels resources and money into building hotels for foreign visitors and supermarkets that sell imported foods to foreigners. Nor has the United Nations given priority to the creation of badly needed labor standards. UNTAET originally said it would adopt Indonesian law except where it contradicted international law. Because Indonesian labor law was changing at the time, UNTAET then said it would develop its own labor regulations. It has yet to do this, leaving East Timor with neither labor laws nor regulations. UNTAET is also developing regulations concerning land use that may allow the unlimited sale of land to foreigners. With times so hard now, East Timorese may be tempted to sell land, thus putting the best property into the hands of foreigners.

The United Nations is now trying to bring many of the refugees back from West Timor. In so doing, they are negotiating with the militia leaders who control the refugee camps. We do not want them to make deals for immunity with these leaders, many of whom have committed crimes in East Timor.

Dialogue: How has the intervention and international presence affected people’s perceptions of human rights and the international human rights community?

Magno: The East Timorese have been researching human rights and democracy in their various community groups for a long time now, since before the Indonesian invasion in 1975. They hold a strong belief in human rights and realize that those rights have not yet been established in East Timor—as they have not yet been established in many countries around the world. The people recognize that this inability to have their voice heard in their own country and to be in any position of power in their own government is a violation of their human rights. That does not mean, however, that they have given up on human rights. Their cynicism is directed at the UN bureaucracy. So far, this attitude has not had a negative impact on local human rights organizations, though we are concerned about this happening in the future. I think local groups have avoided the trap of cynicism because they have been so vocal in pointing the finger of blame at the United Nations, saying, “You’re not recognizing our civil rights or being advocates for the people.”

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